05/04/2006 11:00PM

Morrissey makes mark, then resigns

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OLDSMAR, Fla. - The biggest news at this meet, which concludes Sunday, has been the revamping and improvement of the racing program under the guidance of new racing secretary John Morrissey and his staff. Unfortunately, Morrissey will not be returnintg next season.

Morrissey came in like a man on a mission, and from day one left little doubt with horsemen and fans that he intended to change the face of racing at Tampa. Most of the starter races previously run here were replaced with open claiming events or high-priced optional claiming tests, races that attracted top runners both from Tampa and south Florida. Morrissey's program produced races that saw track records set at four different distances, and they were legitimate performances, not records produced because a racing strip was quickened or speeded up for special days. The five-furlong turf mark was lowered three times during the meeting, over a course that played fair and wasn't rock hard.

In short, the racing program improved dramatically this season under Morrissey. Unfortunately, the rigors of being away from his wife in Salem, Mass., for seven months proved to be too much.

"I enjoyed my time here but it's just too long to be away from home," Morrissey, 57, said recently. "I wish Tampa Bay Downs the best."

General manager Peter Berube had this to say: "We're sorry to lose John, he has made major improvements in the racing product in several major categories and the results have been continued success for us. We'll be starting a search for a new secretary soon but it'll be tough to replace John."

On the training side of things Kirk Ziadie will win his first training title, having won 33 of 107 starts coming into the final weekend, 6 more than Lynne Scace. Scace, who quietly wins with all types of runners, was also second in the standings last season.

Kathleen O'Connell returned to the leader board, having won 24 races through Thursday, while Ronnie Allen continued to do well locally, having won 20 races from 93 starters. Allen trains Cherokee Prince, who won three times, including a track-record performance. Dale Bennett came here in force for the first time and has made his mark with 20 winners. His dad, Gerald, was one back at 19.

The riders' race was no contest, as Jose Lezcano, who rode first call for Ziadie, sprinted to the front right at the beginning of the meet and never looked back. He has won 92 races entering the final weekend. Daniel Centeno was second with 69. Centeno gets the most improved rider award at age 35. He was five winners ahead of T.D. Houghton.

The stakes program was stronger than ever, topped by the Grade 3, $250,000 Tampa Bay Derby. Three runners in that race were entered in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.